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Assamese immigrants struggle to redefine identity

As people flow from India's Assam to Bangladesh, debates over migration.

ASSAM, India — In the northeast pocket of India lies Assam, an exclave famous for its tea gardens and the Brahmaputra River. Since the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, and the 1971 independence of Bangladesh, there has been an escalating flow of people between Assam and Bangladesh. The consequence is an increasing debate over migration, and strenuous arguments over what constitutes the Assamese identity. 

Local Assamese define themselves as Assamese due to their deep ancestral roots in the land, whereas Bangladeshi immigrants consider themselves Assamese after 30 to 50 years of living and working in the state.

The identity politics crisis results from the rising numerical and political strength of these industrious Bangladeshi immigrants, whom the local Assamese perceive as a threat to the Assamese heritage, way of living, and, most importantly, the Assam identity.

This summer, we traveled to Assam to investigate these questions of identity. We started our journey in Dibrugarh, a city in Upper Assam, which is relatively isolated from identity politics because of its physical distance from the border. However, the debate on Assamese identity remains salient, largely due to the state’s flourishing media.

In conversations at The Sentinel, one of two state-wide English newspapers, local journalists gave us their opinions on current immigration issues. According to reporters Ikbal Ahmed and Subhalakshmi Gogoi, the rising numbers in immigrant populations poses an imminent threat to local political identity.

“By number, they want to make it a Greater Bangladesh,” said Ahmed in a concerned tone. He further explained that the sheer numbers of immigrants encourage politicians to view the immigrant communities as vote banks, diminishing the political voice of the local Assamese. Representing the newspaper’s motto, “Of this land, For its people,” these journalists are charged to inform their readers about issues affecting their political identity.

As we moved into the char villages in Lower Assam, the immigrant communities there presented a stark contrast to Dibrugarh’s mainland setting. Chars are sedimentary islands within the Brahmaputra River, inhabited mostly by immigrant populations dependent on the fertile soil for their livelihoods.

Upon asking villagers whether they consider themselves Assamese, we received confused looks. “I am Assamese,” answered Akel Ali without hesitation. This is a man whose family had moved to Assam before 1950, making the idea of questioning his identity perplexing. Akel’s reaction was not a solitary one. We consistently came across such straightforward responses.

Questions of identity are not a top-of-mind concern of the char villagers. Their concerns involve more simple, short-term needs. As Mohammad Ali, a villager from Gaitapu Island, told us, “All I want is a water pump for my field.” The char’s simple nature was always evident in its bare infrastructure, as well as in conversations with villagers.

During our visit to a char named Moira Challi, we met Jahana Begum, a 20-year-old mother who had received an education only up to the third grade. When discussing her affinity to the state, her lack of education became clear; she did not even know that she lived in a state called Assam. Her only concern was that her family be provided with basic living services from the government — whatever government that might be.